§ 6.16 P.m.
§ Lord BUXTON of ALSA rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether 1284 they will now take the lead among our European partners in organising adequate and efficient surveillance and control over vessels in the North Sea and thereby enforce strict standards of anti-pollution for the safety and conservation of the environment and its living resources, without waiting for the resolution of international negotiations affecting the oceans beyond the North Sea. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of my Question to the Government is to ask them to recognise that the time has come for the North Sea to be treated as a separate issue from the oceans as a whole. It is now quite obvious that we cannot wait for world-wide agreement on the laws of the sea before dealing with the special problems of the North Sea. It is nearer to a shallow bay than an ocean: it is more like a backwater, and to compare it with the rest of the oceans is like comparing, say, the Wash with the Bay of Biscay.
§ Secondly, it is small and enclosed. It is smaller than the Hudson Bay, a bit wider than the Baltic and about the same size as the Black Sea. These are very nearly vast lakes and, in their own way, special cases. The exits to the Atlantic from the North Sea are shallow and narrow enough to prevent the interchange of pollutants with the deep oceans, and therefore there is always the prospect that spills of oil will finish up on somebody's beach.
§ It therefore cannot be regarded simply as part of the negotiations for the oceans as a whole. The Mediterranean is more favoured and was designated as a special case by the international convention known as MARPOL. This banned the discharge of oil altogether in the Mediterranean and so the case for special areas has already been made. If there was ever a special case for being designated a special area, it must be our own North Sea—even more so since it is now the oil scene of the century, and that aspect is going to escalate.
§ I am concerned primarily with the conduct of shipping in the North Sea and its approaches. There is a continuous lack of discipline and failure in standards resulting in pollution, but it is only among a minority—and this is the point I am anxious to make—of merchant ships and tankers. Of course, there is a majority of good sailors, and certainly the oil companies do their best where they own 1285 tankers, but not necessarily where they charter them. Oil companies have the prerogative to pick and choose when chartering, and they should do this conscientiously and not resort to what is called "spot" chartering; that is, simply accepting the nearest vessel to hand for reasons of cost.
§ Even though the majority of sea captains conform to acceptable standards and disciplines, there were nevertheless 500 recognised incidents last year of one sort or another. Only four or five were major spills, and in 50 per cent. of the cases involved there was no way of telling the source. We have no adequate surveillance for spotting and tracking the culprits. But it is not the major spills that matter; it is the continuous offences or negligence over the whole spectrum of oil activity in the North Sea which are an accumulating and compounding threat to our sea's natural resources. But the offences are confined to only a few.
§ The main problem, therefore, is the general background oiling all the time from all causes over and above the recognised incidents. I believe that only about 5 per cent. of the oil in the sea actually comes from accidents. In concentrating on accidents, therefore, the Government are chasing the wrong objectives. It is sometimes claimed that the position is improving on this part of the coast or that, because there are fewer accidents. But the accidents are not the right clue. The most reliable testimony is the sea birds. Where oil is concerned, biological monitoring is the most revealing of all. The fact remains that the sea bird casualties have been mounting at a dramatic rate since 1973. In 1973, there were eight incidents involving a few hundred casualties; in 1975, there were 2,000; in 1977, there were 4,000; and in 1978, there were 10,000 sea bird casualties, and up till April this year there were more than half that.
§ Those are just the sea birds washed ashore and spotted—perhaps a fraction of the annual total. It may be that in the last 10 years at least half a million seabirds have perished as a result of oil. But whether or not one minds about seabirds is quite immaterial. This situation is a startling reflection of the sudden impact of the oil era on our North Sea natural resources, because what affects seabirds 1286 also affects fish stocks, crustacea, shellfish, intertidal life, seaweeds, alginates, creatures of the shoreline and salt marshes and, not least and above all, the happiness and holidays of the British public. There are no signs that the general situation is improving.
§ It is not my intention to criticise what has been done by the Government in concert with other countries. Everything that has been done is in the right direction, and the international efforts to conclude agreements must continue. But these efforts through IMCO, the United Nations and other groups cannot avert the mounting danger to the North Sea. For a start, it takes, on average, five years for an IMCO convention to enter into force. Goodness knows how many years it is after that before there is any prospect of enforcement. One must hope that one day the plethora of laws of the sea will be universally adopted and accepted, even by the most unreliable flags of convenience. IMCO has conceived and debated a stream of conventions, amendments to conventions and definitions, has initiated conferences resulting in more conventions, has introduced 30 instruments on safety at sea and has developed 130 resolutions, recommendations, codes of practice and contingency plans, but these will not save the North Sea.
§ Frankly, this whole law of the sea scene is becoming a lawyer's paradise, whereas what we need is not more laws or more bureaucracy, but more leadership and determination, and a clear and aggressive attitude by the Ministers concerned, and Environment and Defence are just as concerned and involved as Trade. Freedom of the seas, especially on our continental shelf, is really now an unacceptable anachronism. Freedom to navigate there should be, but this freedom should be permitted only within strict standards and disciplines, because the North Sea is shallow and enclosed. We therefore have good, sound and logical reasons for acting differently and independently, in company with our North Sea neighbours.
§ The disasters of the "Torrey Canyon" and the "Amoco Cadiz" were, taking the long view, probably a good thing, because they induced serious alarm at Government level and profound public 1287 concern. These isolated catastrophes do serious damage in a temporary and local sense, but they are nothing like so serious as the continuous background oiling that occurs all the time by a minority. As I said, in 1978 there were over 500 such incidents reported in the North Sea and around our coasts.
§ If I suggested that the "Torrey Canyon" and the "Amoco Cadiz" might have been helpful, this in no way applies to Sullom Voe. Here there was absolutely no excuse for the reckless judgment in opening Sullom Voe before ballast discharging facilities were available, and they are not available yet. I am a sufficient realist not to suggest that closing Sullom Voe should be contemplated. but it was a totally irresponsible case of risk-taking which one hopes will never be repeated by this Government.
§ We also have to rid ourselves of the archaic law of the sea about salvage beyond territorial waters. In the case of the "Torrey Canyon", immediate decisions and vital steps were delayed by the intervention of Dutch salvage people. Precious hours and then days were lost. This is absolutely unacceptable in today's circumstances in the North Sea, and the North Sea countries must he forthright and declare that it is absolutely unacceptable and that this so-called law of the sea will not be observed here, because the North Sea is different.
§ If the same attitude, and the same planning and politics that apply to the seas were adopted in the case of aviation, nobody would fly at all. The analogy would be that the main action that Governments took to control air traffic would be on how to clear up the debris after a jumbo-jet had crashed. You can control what goes on in the air, because it is a 20th century phenomenon. But, apparently, because mariners have been sailing the seas for several centuries nobody can interfere with them.
§ Of course, we have to face reality and accept that we are entirely dependent on energy and development, and that it is no good. therefore, complaining about oil. In fact, we must be thankful for the oil, and we are apparently on the threshold of an era of further expansion of North Sea oil activity. But we must avoid wasting 1288 it and spilling it at the cost of the environment. I believe that the first step is that the EEC countries concerned, including Norway, should get together and decide on joint action for surveillance and control; not for drawing up laws. As with oil concessions or weather reporting areas, the whole of the North Sea should be allocated for the purpose of surveillance and pollution control. There should be no part of the North Sea beyond territorial limits which is not subject to surveillance.
§ Reporting in by all vessels approaching the North Sea and traffic separation areas should be made compulsory, in the same way as aircraft report in when approaching the country. The Government do riot at present require vessels outside territorial waters to use pilots. This is quite inadequate, and there are apparently no traffic separation schemes yet for ships approaching Sullom Voe. The relevant international convention brought in an amendment in 1978, prohibiting any discharge of oil within 50 miles of the nearest land. That may be all right in the case of the Atlantic or the Pacific, but it is absolutely not all right in the enclosed North Sea. As I have said, the Mediterranean already has better standards and objectives than our own North Sea, and whether the oil is 50,60,70 or 80 miles out in the North Sea it will finish up on somebody's beach.
§ There should be agreed standards and levels of police forces for surface craft, but especially for aircraft. It is particularly important that these national police forces, primarily in the air, as components of a co-ordinated North Sea strategy should follow through into each other's sector and work in the closest harmony and co-ordination, and they should not simply break off when in pursuit because they have reached their own territorial limits.
§ There is no need for a great new bureacratic outfit in Brussels, The Hague or anywhere else. It is more a case of leadership, declaration of intent and a determination by the new Ministers to make things work. It should be enough, after preliminary negotiations by the countries of Europe and Norway, to order their surveillance and patrol units to co-ordinate, co-operate and get on with it. Far more difficult and hazardous exercises were accomplished between allies during the war.1289
§ It may be asked what these aircraft patrols and police surveillances are supposed to achieve. The best analogy is the copper on the beat or the speed-cop on the motorway. The likelihood of being watched and spotted is the best deterrent there is. Just as everyone immediately conforms to the speed limit the moment a police car appears on a motorway, so sea captains and mariners will he equally inhibited if they know that they are likely to he observed and even photographed or recorded by sophisticated equipment from above. These tactics have already been very successful with the United States coastguard services.
§ On the subject of fines, this aspect is not, in my view, nearly so critical as some say. The most effective penalty for a ship is to be delayed while patrols satisfy themselves as to the conduct or record of the vessel concerned. Legal proceedings and fines become irrelevant. Once this degree of surveillance is widely known, no shipowner or its captain is likely to take any chances. In the case of the "Torrey Canyon" the captain, on the instructions of his owner, took a short-cut in order to save a tide—he obviously lived to regret that—because the financial advantages would apparently have been very significant. That proves the point one way. The other way—it is relevant to note—is that there was a bad oil spill in April of this year off the Bass Rock. However, all that happened to that Liberian tanker, because it was outside our territorial waters, was that it was reported to Liberia. The tanker company was then fined 500 dollars, the maximum under Liberian law.
§ On the other hand, to intercept and delay vessels while questions are being asked, and documents and records examined, is financially significant and would soon be recognised as something to be avoided, particularly if it could result in the withdrawal of insurance cover. In fact, France is already ahead of us in this respect, shameful as that may be. France has introduced effective policing and intervention in the Channel on their side, following "Amoco Cadiz". French naval vessels are now deployed to police the sea lanes off the French coast, and aircraft surveillance has been stepped up on a routine basis.
§ It is embarrassing that we are less purposeful, when one thinks of our record 1290 as leaders of the world on conservation matters. The French actually complained about Britain's attitude of laissez-faire at a conference in Brest last year and about our failure to be resolute and determined. We used to be the unchallenged leaders in conservation matters, and I sincerely hope that this Government will restore us to that position.
§ We all know that ships can he intercepted at sea, provided there is an adequate North Sea police force deployed by this Government and others. Acceptance at any North Sea port can he refused until the intercepting party gives the go-ahead and, according to the degree of suspicion or offence, the delay can be protracted, with painful financial consequences. The fine, therefore, will then, to all intents and purposes, have been paid if the approach which I am suggesting is adopted.
§ The North Sea situation is nothing like the problem that it is generally supposed to be. We are concerned with only a small minority of offenders. The lawyers' paradise is partly derived from the entirely mistaken approach that marine oil pollution is liable to be caused by all tankers under all ownerships and under all managements. This is manifestly not so.
§ We are concerned with a small minority, under two headings: first, lax or inexperienced mariners—or sea rogues, one might say—who should not be allowed into the North Sea at all; and, secondly, sub-standard vessels which should not be admitted into the North Sea, because they are old crocks which would never pass their MOT test, if they had one, which the oil companies should not charter and, further, which Lloyds (perhaps they should have their arms twisted by the Minister concerned) should not thereafter continue to cover by insurance.
§ To take the case of a city, it is not as though the forces of law and order have to move in in order to deal with the inhabitants because they are all criminals. The forces of law and order move in to deal with a handful of hooligans and criminals. The same situation applies in the North Sea. It is a small problem.
§ In taking tough action with the minority of offenders, I simply do not believe that the North Sea Governments will offend the respectable majority. They will, in 1291 fact, award them recognition and encouragement. I an convinced that stern and forthright action against sea rogues and old crocks will be welcomed by all countries, by all oil companies and by all the authorities involved. That is why the tortuous, legalistic process is the wrong way for the North Sea and why the bluff, strong arm approach to root out the handful of offenders is the right way.
§ Published figures show that most accidents are due to a bad class of owner-operators associated with particular flags of convenience. Charter by oil companies from those independent owner-operators resulted during the period from 1972 to 1976 in seven times as many accidents as vessels actually owned by the oil companies. It is the chartered vessels which cause risk, collisions and pollution. It is they which have caused the unnecessary burden of maritime legislation—the lawyers' paradise. In the world's tanker fleet there are, apparently, only 450 substandard vessels—which is, I understand, only 15 per cent. of the total. Of these, about 50 were Panamanian, 20 Cypriot and 175 Greek.
§ Every week, and probably while we are sitting here today, sea rogues, or substandard old crocks, are committing offences. There were three such reports only a few days ago. On 14th June, a Singapore flag tanker leaked 50 tons of oil near Belfast, having been in collision off Sutherland with a Polish bulk carrier. That was not in the news. On 15th June, the Liberian flag tanker "Amoco Trinidad" bound for Texas from Sullom Voe, was spotted by the Royal Air Force at the head of a 15 mile oil slick north of Saint Kilda. That may have done as much damage to natural resources as a major accident, but that was not in the news. On 16th June, a Norwegian flag tanker, "Polytrader", fully loaded, sailed dangerously close to the island of Foula, a famous bird resort, despite sailing instructions to the contrary. This could have been another major disaster like the "Torrey Canyon". And that was not in the news.
§ These regular incidents are clear evidence of substandard vessels, or substandard navigation and crews, and they should not be permitted in the North Sea or in British waters at all. Yet they are 1292 never in the news. Parliament and public are unaware of them, and they are not what the Government are trying to deal with. It is interesting that on 21st June a German tanker collided, when it was coming out of Esso Fawley, with an RFA logistical vessel, whatever that may be. Noble Lords probably heard in the news on radio this morning that it has now sunk.
§ It is interesting that this incident is going to receive a great deal of publicity. Already it has been on radio; now it will be on television, and no doubt it will be in all of tomorrow's newspapers. However, the vessel has not yet spilled any oil and it is not doing any harm. Obviously, it is a very serious matter, and it is extraordinary that this vessel should have been involved in a collison, but so far as 1 am aware it presents no danger to the natural environment or to natural resources, and there has been no spillage of oil. However, this incident has got into the news, whereas the three incidents which I have mentioned to your Lordships, and which were probably infinitely worse, were never heard about.
§ The slow, tortuous exercise of international maritime legislation will not solve our problems. The North Sea Governments, led by Britain, should take a sledgehammer and crack this nut.
§ Effective identification and control of this small minority of substandard tankers, or substandard crews, could transform the pollution situation and reduce the need for international legislation. Without insurance, substandard tankers and substandard crews could not operate. However, if they are allowed to operate, then laws and regulations become futile. Only surveillance and control are effective, yet the absence of surveillance and control leads to the demand for more and more legislation which, in its turn, does not solve the problem.
§ On the question of cost, both for this country and for the North Sea group, it is a question of priorities. All I would say is that a country which cannot protect and conserve its own environment for the nation, and for our descendants, cannot afford to spend millions on welfare and on causes like the arts. Of course I am not hostile to the arts—I am very much for the arts—but they provide an interesting and significant yardstick. The 1293 Government have been spending over £60 million on the arts for a minority interest. Although the grant to the arts probably benefits only a small fraction of the population, I do not grudge it, provided that the new Government, unlike the last, get their priorities right. If £60 million is a reasonable figure for the arts, policing the North Sea to ensure the survival of its natural resources and our sea shores is worth a great deal more than that.
§ The whole spectrum of the oil business is a very serious threat to the natural resources around our coast and in the North Sea, and £60 million, or even £200 million, would be chickenfeed to avert problems, trouble and bad publicity, particularly in the expanding years ahead. Probably, however, it is not necessary; it is a question of co-ordination and determination. North Sea oil revenue to the country is estimated by the Government to be £4 billion a year in the mid-1980s. Surely it is worth spending a reasonable percentage of that revenue to protect our environment.
§ There may be 1 million devotees of the arts, but there are over 5 million bird watchers and wildlife sympathisers, 5 million fishermen, millions with yachts, boats and little craft of all sorts, and many millions of people—mainly families—who spend their holidays and weekends by the sea, playing on the sand or among the rocks and the cliffs around our coastline.
§ The cost of living is one thing. That is a real problem. However, I object to the term, "standard of living". We all have different standards. When it comes to recreation, some people may prefer to be sitting in the opera house, but for others the idea of paradise is a tent, or a derelict cottage near the sea, or a boat. What is relevant to all is the quality of life. No Government have the right to prescribe standards and it would surely be alien to this Government to continue to give a bonus of £60 million to a small minority group, while denying the wherewithal to ensure clean seas, shores and beaches and a decent natural environment for the majority and for future generations.
§ May I therefore urge the Government to take this new opportunity of introducing a fresh and popular philosophy regarding North Sea conservation; first, by treating 1294 the North Sea as a special case. This will win great acclaim and respect from the country. What can be done for the arts can certainly be done for our marine environment. Some might say that the responsibility for the North Sea is confusing and that there are too many departments involved. In my view, this should be regarded as the strength of the position, in that almost every Ministry, as well as the Navy and the RAF, seems to have a common aim in North Sea surveillance and improved standards of control. While all parties must want to see North Sea pollution minimised, there are other aspects, such as security and defence, which all point in the same direction and would justify the use of all our resources for a common purpose, in order to fill the dangerous vacuum in surveillance that exists in the North Sea today. I would imagine that NATO might be just as relieved as the RSPB.
§ Secondly, therefore, we cannot delay on the North Sea until global international negotiations are concluded. I trust the Government will recognise that the practical course now is to get on with the job in concert with our North Sea partners and Norway and not allow prolonged Law of the Sea negotiations to inhibit forthright action.
§ 6.42 p.m.
§ Baroness STEDMAN
My Lords, we all remember the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, on conservation, and I am delighted—and I am sure the House is—that he is giving us the opportunity this evening of talking more about conservation, particularly so far as the North Sea is concerned and the effects of oil spillage and the importance of protecting our environment from marine pollution. One of the first trade questions I had to answer in your Lordships' House from the Dispatch Box opposite was on the tragedy of the "Amoco Cadiz", and I am deeply conscious of the amount of time and thought that this incident has provoked, even among various Government departments—trade, environment and MAFF, and now with the North Sea oil being such a major industry in Scotland, the Scottish Office are also deeply concerned.
The noble Lord, Lord Buxton, has referred to the need for us to try to get 1295 European co-operation, through the EEC at least, for some strong measures to combat the marine pollution and its effect upon our environment. On the face of it, this seems to be a sound suggestion, particularly since international agreements are so difficult and take so much time to negotiate. As he has reminded us, we have to remember that all the countries bordering on the North Sea are not yet members of the EEC—for instance, Norway is not—but if we can get voluntary codes of practice agreed among our immediate neighbours in regard to the surveillance and control, then for heaven's sake let us work towards it. But I believe it is an international problem and ultimately it can only be dealt with internationally.
One such step in the right direction was the Merchant Shipping Act which received Royal Assent as recently as March of this year, because that Act makes provision for the prohibition of the deliberate discharge of oil from ships as agreed in the international convention for the prevention of pollution from ships. In March, too, the Department of Trade organised a national conference on combating oil pollution, and that gave an opportunity for a forum to review and discuss the improved arrangements for dealing with oil spills at sea. I understand that the organisation of that conference was the United Kingdom's contribution to World Maritime Day on 16th March. It is an annual event, sponsored by IMCO, and this year it had as its theme, "Safer Shipping and Cleaner Oceans". That, I am sure, is something that we can all support.
At that forum there were many interesting papers presented by experts. For instance, we learned that the "Amoco Cadiz" spilled 220,000 tonnes of oil, mostly light Middle East crudes, with some 4,000 tonnes of bunker fuel. In a two-week period that was spilled on to the coast of Brittany. The wind carried that oil into bays and inlets where high concentrations were measured in the shallow waters and the effects on the organisms depended upon the type of habitat, on the distance from the spill and, indeed, even on the configuration of the coastline. In general, those living on the surface of the beach or the seabed were smothered, while the burrowing organisms were affected by 1296 the toxic dissolved fraction of the oil. Brittany supports a diverse commercial fishing industry and their fishing industry, particularly for oysters and clams, suffered very severe losses.
Recently in this House we had a short debate on the problems of the oil spillage off the Shetlands at Sullom Voe, and here in one incident involving 600 tonnes of heavy fuel oil over 3,500 bird casualties were found in the following three months and are still being found as a result of that accident. Over 5,000 of our sea birds died on the stretch of the coast between Spurn Head and North Northumberland in two months early last year. These figures do not show the true level of the casualties because many of the birds perish at sea and never reach the shore.
So in the United Kingdom we must be concerned because we host populations of birds with a very low annual breeding rate, birds such as the guillemots, the razorbills and the puffins, together with species that only breed in a very few places, some of which are in the United Kingdom—all those which congregate on our shores during the winter, before migration or for moulting. Other elements in the marine and coastal environment are also at risk from oil spillages. The sand and the mudfiats are the feeding and the roosting grounds and oil stranded in the vegetation here can cause heavy mortality. The salt marshes are used for grazing sheep and cattle. They can recover from a single spillage, but they cannot survive chronic and continuous pollution. The grey seal pups can even become asphyxiated if the oil is washed over them at high tide.
The "Torrey Canyon" incident in 1967 led to the formation of contingency plans by the Government and there is some specialised pollution clearance equipment now available to local authorities. Incidents like the "Eleni V" can be dealt with by these earlier contingency plans, but more highly developed plans are needed for incidents like the "Amoco Cadiz".
Until now the Government have accepted that it is the local authorities who should direct the actual beach cleaning operations, and also that their plans dealing with beach pollution must go side by side and dovetail in to the plans of the Department of Trade for dealing with 1297 pollution at sea. Cleaning up beaches can be a very costly operation for local authorities. Can we not work internationally for Governments to accept the financial and other responsibilities for spillages from their registered vessels and thus enable the Government to make all the necessary financial help available to local authorities without any delay, and let the final and ultimate settlement be between Governments? Certainly with cuts in public expenditure as massive as those foretold in the Budget, coastal local authorities will be extremely hard-pressed to find the resources to deal with marine pollution and pollution on their beaches.
I know that there is an agreement—the Bonn Agreement—which has been operative since 1969 between the United Kingdom, Belgium, Denmark, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden to arrange for their ships and aircraft to report all oil slicks, to inform one another of oil slicks which are likely to pose a serious threat to another's coast and to seek, where possible, to give assistance one to another. That is a good beginning, but now we have to build on it and provide for better surveillance of the type envisaged by the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa. There is a new Marine Pollution Control Unit within the Marine Division of the Department of Trade and various studies are being undertaken to deal with pollution at sea; what salvage arrangements are necessary; reviewing the liability and compensation provisions and considering beach cleaning arrangements. The report already published by the Department of Trade on Command, Control and Communications is excellent, so far as it goes. What we now need is a sound and reasonable system of monitoring the movements of tankers and that should be one of the priorities of the Government at this time.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which many noble Lords support, as I do, and of which body my noble friend Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge is president, is understandably very deeply concerned about the effects of oil pollution. The RSPB was the first organised body to campaign against oil pollution through parliamentary means way back in 1922. Yet, the problem is still with us and is as bad as ever. The RSPB claims that some of the worst hit areas—those on the 1298 English Channel coasts—now have relatively few sea birds left to kill. Such has been the unnecessary slaughter because of oil spillages.
From studies made it would seem that deliberate discharges appear to kill many more birds overall than do tanker disasters. But, if half a ton of fuel oil from a bilge discharge is spilled in the wrong place, then disproportionately large numbers of birds will be killed. The real problem seems to be that the United Kingdom anti-pollution laws, since the first Act in 1922, have not been actively enforced outside ports and harbours. Indeed, in recent years one, two or three offences at sea have been successfully prosecuted each year. I quote from a Department of Trade report of 1st August 1978 on the exercise and performance of the Department of Trade under the Prevention of Oil Pollution Act 1971, for the year ending 31st December 1977, where it says:Fifty-eight prosecutions for unlawful discharges of oil were undertaken during the year by harbour authorities for offences committed in ports and two by the Department of Trade for offences at sea. Fifty-six of the harbour authority prosecutions as well as the Department of Trade prosecutions resulted in convictions. Nineteen convictions related to offences by United Kingdom registered ships and thirty-two to offences by ships of foreign flags. The remaining seven convictions concerned discharges from installations on land".So, no realistic deterrent exists at present. That same Department of Trade report ended by saying that 59 countries had accepted the international convention for the prevention of pollution of the sea by oil as agreed in 1954–25 years ago—and as amended in 1962, which was 17 years ago. Yet, we are still saying in this House that international action is needed to deter offences outside territorial seas which threaten bird life and marine environment in our care.
The RSPB and others feel that the IMCO rules are being widely flouted and the RSPB also believes that active surveillance over the United Kingdom Continental Shelf waters must be stepped up. We must have a new initiative to protect our vital marine resources, our wildlife and our environment.
I referred earlier to the problems off the Shetlands. A measured count of sea birds killed since 1975 has latterly shown a rise with a strong bias towards the 1299 vulnerable North. A recent report of the RSPB indicated… a perceptible change in the geographical distribution of incidents affecting birds. Of 55 cases, each killing more than 50 birds during the period 1971–1976, only live or (9 per cent.) were north of Aberdeen. In the 28 months, January 1977-April 1979, the comparative totals were 9 our of 35 (26 per cent.). Whilst these figures are admittedly based on small samples, there are fears that the expected surge of incidents off North Scotland, threatening the main seat of Europe's seabird population, is now in train".The United Kingdom has an international obligation to conserve the sea bird heritage of the North-East Atlantic, centred in North Scotland, Orkney and Shetland. That duty is now being put to a very severe test by the advent of North Sea oil tanker traffic. It is difficult to discharge that obligation unless real preventive methods are provided. That brings me back to where I started. This is not solely a European problem; it is an international one which needs international agreements, international cooperation, and an international willingness to accept the obligations to preserve our marine resources.
It is the safety of people at sea that must always be paramount, but we owe it to the generations that are still to come not to let up in the fight against pollution and in the fight to preserve our environment and our heritage. The noble Lord has given us an opportunity to raise the matter again in the House. I must conclude, I am sorry to say, with an apology which I have already made to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. I have an inescapable commitment which means that I must leave the House just before 7.30. 1 apologise to the House and to the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, if I am not present for the reply, but I assure your Lordships that no discourtesy is intended on my part.
§ 6.57 p.m.
§ Lord TANLAW
My Lords, we too on these Benches are very pleased to be able to join with the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, and share his concern for the problems that oil pollution has caused to the environment and to conservationists. This is an international problem and one as regards which this country has had a fine record to date. If I interpreted correctly what the noble Lord, Lord 1300 Buxton, said, he wishes to keep that position.
However, I hesitate to suggest that any form of unilateral action taken by any one nation—even this country—could in practice make it harder for pollution to take place than a recognition of internationally adopted regulations. That view is emphasised by the General Council of British Shipping which believes that unilateral action by any one maritime nation would merely encourage outbreaks of similar action in other parts of the world which would be to the detriment of shipping in general, and in my view it would also add to the confusion that exists in maritime law in the area which we are discussing this evening.
As I see it, the nature of the problem is two-fold: first, there is the prevention of spillages in port which is one particular problem for which there is a set of regulations clearly defined and which can be controlled and monitored by our shore-based administration. However, the spillages that take place at sea are the ones which we seem to have more difficulty in finding an answer to, and they are pollutions by accident or by wilful dumping of ballast.
The proper use of port facilities and the implementation of local regulations have, to a large extent, been covered in an earlier debate in this House. Therefore I should like to concentrate now mainly on the problems that arise at sea and especially in the approaches to oil terminal ports. I believe that action could and should be taken in laying down accepted routes for tankers on the approaches to terminals such as Sullom Voe. My right honourable friend in another place, the right honourable Member for Orkney and Shetland, has expressed concern that tankers are taking a short cut—one of which was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Buxton—between the mainland and Foula which is a notoriously dangerous channel, and he anticipates the possibility of a major accident occurring in that area. My right honourable friend has anticipated, tragically, the kind of sequence of events of accidents that have occurred to date in the area of oil pollution. I believe that great attention should be paid to his words. He has pressed that tankers should be asked to keep well West of Foula and requests have also 1301 been sent to oil companies and others to execute that as a standing order for masters. Unfortunately—and this was again indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa—international law is obscure as to whether or not this can be made legal. Perhaps the Minister will be able to guide me on this when he replies at the end of the debate.
Only a matter of weeks ago the tanker referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, was observed passing between Papa Stour and Foula. This gave rise to much local concern. It may be worth mentioning that the Shetland Islanders are better qualified to recognise the dangers that exist in navigating the treacherous waters which surround our shores than are some of the masters who sail those waters. Therefore, these warnings should not go unheeded.
Perhaps there is a partial solution; it is a practical solution and does not encroach into the area of international law. I do not see why any vessels observed from the shore by shore-based surveillance, such as the coastguard, should not be reported to the oil terminal and given some form of time penalty. Masters would soon realise that by taking a shortcut—and those short-cuts mean that the vessels come close to the coast—they can be observed either by the coastguard or by a member of the county council, and be reported to the terminal. Thus, far from saving time, the vessel will lose time. I do not believe that this is necessarily a satisfactory answer, but it is a practical one until some regulations can be made to clarify the route approaches to Sullom Voe.
Briefly, there are two types of spillages. One is the premeditated, wilful act of the dumping of ballast at sea, which we have covered in a number of debates. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, has also mentioned it and I believe it is something for which we can legislate. I believe that the accidental spillage that creates the background pollution referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, is much more difficult, because I suspect that a great deal of this pollution takes place without the knowledge of the master of the vessel. I suspect that it takes place through misuse of equipment, through ignorance of the equipment, and through the wrong kind of crew personnel operating equipment 1302 which they should not operate—in which case they would not tell the master of the vessel that they have made a mistake; they would just hope that no one notices. It is almost impossible to legislate for that, except perhaps by the terminal ports or some form of regulatory body supervising the standard of crews that operate the machinery on these very large vessels.
Finally, I want to return to the problem of obtaining international agreement on regulations to combat oil pollution. I suspect that oil pollution is one of the few subjects that so clearly divides the world between the developed and the less developed countries. Oil pollution of the high seas is mainly a problem for industrial nations whose appetites for fuel still remain insatiable. Less developed countries may never have the opportunity to pollute their territorial waters with oil because the oil will have run out long before their economies have reached the stage of industrial development which we have in the West. For instance, we should not forget that those countries bordering the South China Sea may not be keen to give oil pollution such a high priority as we, in the West, give it, because their shores are not being polluted by oil; they have the debris of broken boats and bodies from a persecuted people on their beaches.
I am trying to say that we in this country have reached a stage of industrial development that has created the problems of oil pollution. It has also given us a sense of education that we must protect our beaches, and, as has been said, protect our wildlife and create a nice environment for tourism and pleasure. However, there are other countries which, as yet, may not have the opportunity to regard the problem of oil pollution in the same way as we do. Therefore, we must be sympathetic towards some of their hesitancy in reaching international agreements of the kind sought by us today. So let us show understanding when we ask for their help in making regulations to solve the problems on our shoreline, and at the same time show sympathy towards the very different problems which rest on their shoulders.
§ Lord BUXTON of ALSA
My Lords, for the record, may I remind the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, that I did not suggest 1303 unilateral action by this country; only joint international action with our European neighbours, including Norway.
§ 7.7 p.m.
§ Lord RITCHIE-CALDER
My Lords, I am delighted to take part again in this discussion and to follow the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, in bringing this Question to the attention of your Lordships. I should like to deal first with the last point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, which is that we must wait for the slowest in the convoy in international affairs. That is basically true. Most of the developing countries, which are now properly arguing their case in the Law of the Sea Conference—in which I am pretty heavily involved—are, in fact, not fully aware of the risks which we are now discussing. On the other hand, as the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, has pointed out, events are taking place very near home, in the North Sea.
As a professor of international relations, I have always maintained that we should proceed through international law, even with delays of international law. However, there is one aspect of this matter which does not tolerate delay. It is the fact that one can saturate a whole area, as we arc now doing in the North Sea, with this type of pollution even before the global answers are reached. Most of the things that we are now discussing in terms of what could be done as regards protection in the North Sea have already been basically accepted in international law, either in IMCO or in the Law of the Sea Conference. The fact that these conventions have taken a long time either in being ratified or in being applied is another serious question. But the fact is that we accept them as desirable, as meaningful and as practical.
I want to take up the argument advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, that we should and must make the North Sea a special case. As he pointed out, we have made the Mediterranean a special case. I take a good deal of satisfaction from that, because I was involved in preparing the first report on the pollution of the Mediterranean which alerted the 17 countries which, in the end, came together in the Barcelona Pact. Therefore, we can make progress by making 1304 people aware of their immediate, close-in interests, and we have certainly done it in the Mediterranean—even by creating an adversary situation between the countries bordering the North African Mediterranean coasts and the industrial nations bordering the European coasts. Speaking now from my experience as the chairman of the Advisory Committee on Oil Pollution in the Sea, this is something which we could do on our own initiative—not unilaterally and not simply in blunt defiance of international regulations, but by reaching an understanding with all our neighbours bordering the North Sea and persuading them to take part in what I and the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, believe is the necessary act of surveillance.
The North Sea, and even more so the Western and now the Northern approaches are densely packed with ships and the hazards are increasing every day. If you look at a radar map of the traffic, you begin to think that it is an insoluble problem. As the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, pointed out, it is not that kind of thing. As he said, there are the rogues. They are the people who go to the extent of getting in behind an oil disaster like the "Eleni V and the "Amoco Cadiz" and getting rid of their ballast oil. This goes on continuously.
We ought to try also to get this into proportion. The Advisory Committee on Oil Pollution of the Sea pointed out in its report in March that 50 per cent. of the incidents which we were able to establish and discriminate were in fact not from accidents but were from fuel and bunker oil. The principal sources were cargo supply vessels, platforms—we keep on forgetting about the amount of incidental spillage from platforms—and tankers, in that order.
It is the tankers, the vessels which are going to make the most spectacular contribution if they have an accident, which in fact, in the totality, are contributing less than the other sources of pollution. If we are to have proper surveillance it is important that we have a proper system of determining the nature of the spillages. If I may put in a commericial for my own organisation, we are now doing a remarkable job in this. In our last report we have in fact produced the very careful—and I repeat "careful"—picture of the 1305 incidents and identified them in various ways.
We are now co-operating with the Norwegians and the Swedes, and are hoping to work also with the EEC countries in the collection and assembly of information. We can now begin to get a proper picture out of this confusion of sources, and to identify the sources. As I think your Lordships will know, it is important that you know where the oil came from. When you come to the question of insurance, you have ultimately to go back to the source even to recover the insurance.
The most important thing we want to do—and I want to press upon the Government that they can at least make this contribution—is to make sure that in the North Sea surveillance systems (the Nimrods, the protection systems, and so on) in fact carry infra-red detection systems so that no ship will ever feel secure at night. If that was well enough known, if it was generally believed that it was so, you could cut down a great deal of the mischief because they would not know they were being watched. That would be almost as effective as intercepting them.
The other thing which thé noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, pointed out is that there is a way in which you can deal with the problem. We have, in ACOPS—the Advisory Commission on Oil Pollution of the Sea—been advocating that we must get some port stage jurisdiction; we must be able at the port stage to deal with the people who make the mischief at sea. We have not got that. It is a significant fact that in 1978 the Department of Trade was able to report only one successful prosecution of a ship which had polluted at sea. We can deal with it in the ports. The port authorities are rather good.
I have just been to Sullom Voe, where they are having some difficulty because the Shetland Islands Council are carrying out what is called a secret inquiry into what happened at Sullom Voe—much to the indignation of the 17,000 people of Shetland who think that they should he sitting in on that. Here is an authority which is taking its responsibility extremely seriously, because this incident was, from the point of view of the Shetlands, as 1306 my noble friend Lady Stedman pointed out, serious in terms of the effect on wild life, and so on. But in a case such as this the Government ought to have stepped in and conducted that public inquiry with the rights of privileged hearings, because the Islands Council is not covered by privilege, and therefore can be exposed to all kinds of outcomes from this. So they shut the doors as thoroughly as you can ever shut the doors in Shetland. They know exactly what is happening every hour of the day.
Here you have a population of 17,000 and a council which is standing up to the whole effects of this, and the whole of the impact of the oil. Along with the Sollum Voe Association, they have established these lanes, and so forth. and insisted on ships using them coming in. They have also made it clear that any ship which has obviously got rid of its oil ballast on the way in will be at the end of the queue when it comes to refuelling, which is the time sanction which the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, was asking for. Please, my Lords, do not force me into pointing out that this might be called industrial action.
That is one way short of proper jurisdiction, without powers, and so forth, that you can begin to operate. The most important thing is that we have to have in the North Sea a new understanding between ourselves and other North Sea States, and we have to have the supervision and the powers of intervention. This has now become so serious that we shall not be able to offer any promises to posterity unless we do something now.
§ 7.17 p.m.
§ Lord TREFGARNE
My Lords. we are indeed indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, for raising once more the question of oil pollution of the sea by ships, which is undoubtedly a matter of continuing public interest and concern. We have all been sickened, have we not, by the pathetic sight of seabirds so smothered by oil as to he barely recognisable as once living creatures; we have all seen photographs of the beaches of Brittany as they were last year covered by a thick carpet of oil; and many of us—or our children—have come across the tar and the like to our cost on our own beaches.
1307 As I have said, all this is undoubtedly a matter of continuing public interest and concern, but I should like to begin by considering the extent and nature of the problem. Perhaps the most widely quoted global assessment of the scale of the problem is that made under the auspices of the American National Academy of Sciences. This suggested that, in 1973, shipping accounted for 2.1 million tons, or slightly over one-third, of the oil entering the oceans of the world. Land-based sources were, quantitively, rather larger, accounting for some 2.5 million tons, or about 40 per cent. of the total. A recent updating of these figures indicates that, in 1977, shipping accounted for about 1.4 million tons, or a little over a quarter of the total.
Breaking these figures down a little further, the National Academy of Science assessment indicated that shipping accidents, mainly tanker accidents, which of course attract worldwide attention, account for around 0.3 million tons, or only 5 per cent. of the total. The other calculations to which I referred earlier show broadly the same picture. By far the greater part of oil entering the sea from ships is discharged as a result of their day-to-day operations. The major element is undoubtedly the small minority of tankers that pump overboard oil contaminated ballast water or tank washings; but we should not forget the role of those ships of all types, not only tankers, which discharge their engine room bilges.
I recognise that oil discharged from ships represents a particularly worrying aspect of the overall problem of oil pollution, notably when a large spill has a devastating local impact. None the less, we should bear in mind that these discharges do not represent the total problem, and that there are grounds for believing that international action over the years has succeeded in reducing the scale of these discharges.
I turn to the nature of the impact on the environment of oil discharged from ships. First, there is the impact on fisheries. There is no doubt that oil on the sea surface disrupts fishing, since fishermen are naturally reluctant to haul their gear through an oil slick which may contaminate their nets and taint the catch. Oil on the surface of the open sea does, however, 1308 have space to disperse and be diluted and time to degrade by chemical and biological means. In these circumstances, it has not been found to cause adverse effects on fisheries or marine food chains. In coastal regions, on the other hand, where oil can make contact with the bottom and become stranded on the shore, it may damage organisms by smothering or by toxic impact, and where oil becomes incorporated in the sediments these effects can remain for years.
Secondly, there is the impact on amenity beaches. The effect of the exceptional major oil spill close to the shore is there for all to see; such gross pollution can be removed at great cost, but oily residues that become buried can persist for years. Then there is the continuing problem of tar balls and the like associated with the so-called "operational" discharges from ships. This undoubtedly represents a nuisance, but how much of a nuisance? Such information as we have suggests that local authorities choose to spend perhaps £100,000 a year on cleaning up this form of pollution.
Thirdly, there is the impact on other parts of our coast. Oil pollution generally does little harm to life on exposed shores, but in sheltered bays and estuaries where fine sediments occur, and in salt marshes, it can have far-reaching and long-lasting effects on the components of the food chain and on the large variety of birds which may feed and roost there.
Fourthly, there is the impact on birds. The sea birds and wildfowl in and around the British Isles are of international importance. Our knowledge of their movements offshore is at present limited. To help remedy this gap in our knowledge, the Nature Conservancy Council are hoping to undertake an investigation of the distribution of sea birds at sea, which would help us to assess the threat posed by particular spills. What is of particular concern here is that an individual spill—which need not be very large—will decimate a species with only a handful of breeding colonies around our coasts and with a low annual breeding rate. The "Esso Bernicia" incident at Sullom Voe is an example that comes readily to mind.
I now draw your Lordships' attention to an absentee from this catalogue—the 1309 loss of human life. Oil spills in themselves do not kill people. I would therefore pose the question: where should oil pollution rank in our priorities? Oil pollution clearly has harmful consequences, but how does it rank, for example, compared with trying to prevent accidents involving ships? A particularly serious and striking example was the explosion at the beginning of this year on the "Betelgeuse" in Bantry Bay, which killed 50 people; or trying to prevent accidents involving aircraft? We all remember the recent tragedy at Chicago airport; or trying to reduce the annual carnage on our roads? The chances are that someone has been killed even during the course of this short debate.
But that does not mean that we should simply accept the situation and do nothing. A great deal can be done, has been done, is being done and will continue to be done. And I might remark in passing that our concern must extend to the whole of our coastline. With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, I am sure we would be unwise to restrict our attention to those parts of our shores which happen to border on the North Sea.
I turn to the question of how one should tackle the problem and the issue of "unilateralism". It is no accident that for many years we have sought to establish an internationally agreed world-wide framework for the shipping industry. The reason is quite simple; shipping is by its nature an international industry. A ship begins its voyage in one country and very often ends its voyage in another, perhaps having called at a third, fourth and fifth country on the way. A single, well understood set of rules that have been agreed and are accepted world-wide is an important factor contributing to shipping safety. If I might suggest an analogy, what would happen if each of our major cities introduced and sought to enforce its own set of road signs and its own version of the Highway Code?
Added to that, a single set of rules makes it possible for shipping to operate flexibly on a world-wide basis. This flexibility is greatly to our advantage both as a major shipping nation and as a major user of shipping services for our imports and our exports. If one accepts that we have an important national interest at 1310 stake in promoting an international approach to shipping matters, it necessarily follows that we must exercise extreme caution before we indulge in national, or unilateral, initiatives. And that applies equally to regional initiative with our European partners; the North Sea is not an inland water of exclusively regional concern but a major sea used by the ships of the nations of the world.
A somewhat related matter is the question of enforcement which has traditionally been regarded as the responsibility of the flag State. This approach has many advantages; the flag State is more likely to have access to the owner and is better placed to supervise safety standards on a sustained basis. But there is a complementary and increasing role for the port State—that is, the country at whose port the vessel calls—to enforce agreed international standards. Discussions at the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference have reached consensus on an important extension of port State jurisdiction on pollution matters.
There are those who envisage a wider role for the coastal State—that is, the country whose shores the ship is passing—but what does coast State enforcement involve in practice? It means being prepared to induce a perhaps reluctant master to bring his ship into our ports. Are we ready to contemplate the use of gunboats, or putting a shot across the bows of an oil tanker or sending boarding parties to sea, except under the most extreme circumstances? Questions of practicality also arise if one contemplates regulating traffic from the shore, drawing parallels with civil aviation.
I am advised, first, that "sea clutter", as it is called, tends to distort radar displays, making it difficult to track small craft at sea. But perhaps more important is the basic, indeed obvious, difference between the environment in which aircraft are controlled and that in which ships operate. The difference is that one aircraft can fly at a higher altitude than another. This has two consequences. First, one can set aside air lanes for the exclusive use of civil airliners—and when we speak of air traffic control, we generally have in mind the system applied to these aircraft—and the second consequence is that crossing traffic can be kept vertically separate.
1311 It does not seem to be realistic to envisage the physical separation of the different types of user of the seas, and it is plainly impossible to envisage the vertical separation of crossing traffic. This means that, for the most part, the master must remain responsible for the safe navigation of his ship. He is increasingly being aided by modern technology and we should not forget that ships move relatively slowly and generally in relatively empty seas. Ship movements will no doubt continue to be more closely controlled in and around major ports and there will be areas, such as the Channel, where a degree of traffic management is necessary. Indeed, a whole range of measures over the past decade have succeeded in greatly improving safety standards in that relatively busy waterway. The number of collisions has been more than halved.
Your Lordships will be aware of the voluntary ship movement reporting scheme, which we introduced at the start of this year with our French colleagues and with the full knowledge of the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organisation—IMCO. After the current trial period, we hope that IMCO will recommend full participation in this scheme. Discussions are also under way towards developing an integrated traffic scheme for the Channel as a whole. We hope that these developments will in due course lead to a further improvement in safety.
While again on the subject of aircraft, perhaps I might say a few words about aerial surveillance. The pilots of all British aircraft, and the masters of all British ships for that matter, are already asked to report any oil spills that they see. This applies equally to military aircraft and ships, including the so-called "North Sea Tapestry" flights. When added to the assistance provided by the Services in dealing with oil spills, this represents a most valuable contribution by the Ministry of Defence to tackling the problem of oil pollution.
It is sometimes suggested that this so-called "casual" surveillance should be supplemented by aircraft dedicated to this task. This could undoubtedly be done. Indeed, in due course, by developing work already under way at the Warren Spring Laboratory and elsewhere on side looking 1312 radar and infra-red sensing devices, we could develop something approaching a 24-hour a day, all-weather surveillance capability. The knowledge that such a systematic surveillance was being carried out might well deter some masters from discharging oily ballast water or oily bilge water. Such flights might provide some of the evidence needed for successful prosecutions in other cases, and such flights might identify some oil spills that merited taking action to disperse. But the annual cost could easily amount to several million pounds. The question that we have to ask ourselves, my Lords, is whether that additional expenditure is justified, given our other priorities and our determination to reduce the demands that the public sector makes on the available resources.
I said earlier that a great deal is being done to mitigate the problem of oil pollution. I have already spoken briefly of developments that are in train further to improve safety in the Channel. A number of international conventions and agreements have been concluded in recent years that are directed at improved standards of shipping safety, pollution prevention, and training for seafarers. The necessary number of ratifications of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea has now been achieved, and that convention will come into force next May. We now need to bring the other agreements into force. For our part the Merchant Shipping Act 1979, which received the Royal Assent in the closing days of the last Parliament, will enable us progressively to do just that.
We need to enforce those internationally agreed enhanced standards both in relation to our own ships and for all ships in our ports, so far as skilled manpower is available. We also need to continue to develop our arrangements for dealing with serious oil spills. So far as the situation at sea is concerned, that is now the particular responsibility of the Marine Pollution Control Unit that has been established within the Department of Trade. I see that the noble Baroness's coach has turned into a pumpkin; but she mentioned the new Marine Pollution Control Unit, and it is certainly doing a great job.
Many noble Lords will have read of the exercise held last week—Manchex—to 1313 test the arrangements known as Manche-plan that we have developed with our French colleagues for responding to maritime emergencies in the Channel. Similar exercises are regularly held to test our national arrangements along other parts of our coastline, and they represent one important way in which we seek to improve our contingency plans still further. Your Lordships may also have read that we are investing in two caches of salvage equipment in order to ensure the availability of the pumps and associated equipment needed to transfer oil from a stricken tanker to a receiving vessel. This will involve expenditure of several hundreds of thousands of pounds.
As I said when opening, oil discharged from ships is only part of the problem. We therefore look forward to receiving in due course advice on this and the wider perspective from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, on which the noble Lord, Lord Buxton of Alsa, once served with such distinction. We shall continue our efforts in all these ways to promote safety at sea and to limit the damage to the marine environment that is associated with the undoubted benefits we enjoy as a result of the activities of the shipping industry, and, in particular, from our use of oil.
There is no doubt in the Government's mind that oil pollution is a problem that merits, and will continue to receive, serious attention. Our first aim of course remains to prevent oil being spilled into the sea, although we must recognise that a catastrophe is an ever present danger. It is part of the price of personal mobility, industrial production, warmth and light. Let he who enjoys none of these cast the first stone. But recognising the inevitability of at least some accidents, we shall continue to deal with those spills in a way which seeks to minimise the pollution damage done to sea birds, fisheries, ecologically sensitive areas, and amenity beaches.
Before I sit down I wish briefly to deal with some of the points raised by various noble Lords in the course of the short, but interesting, debate this evening. The noble Lord, Lord Buxton, who raised a number of matters, asked about making the North Sea a special case, and the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, also mentioned this point. The Mediterranean 1314 is of course already a special case under the MARPOL convention, but I know of no evidence that the North Sea is incapable of absorbing the very limited discharges permitted under that convention. But should evidence to the contrary be produced, then MARPOL embodies a procedure for creating further special areas. The noble Lord, Lord Buxton, also referred to the 500 or so oil spills reported in 1978. I might mention that according to the ACOPS annual report, to which the noble Lord, Lord Ritchie-Calder, referred, about three-quarters of them resulted in no damage being perceived or reported.
The noble Lord, Lord Buxton, also asked me about the powers to detain ships pending investigation. I regret that I do not think that we have such powers at present, but it seems to me that we should continue to exercise considerable care before detaining ships and delaying them simply on suspicion. This practice could lead to confusion and a degree of chaos in the shipping industry. Moreover, the approach smacks of a presumption of guilt, rather than one of innocence, and that I believe is not an approach we should adopt without the most careful consideration.
Several noble Lords raised the question of Sullom Voe and the serious problems that have been occurring there recently. At the beginning of this year there was a considerable public outcry because of pollution from oily balast water discharged by tankers using Sullom Voe. This was associated in the public mind with the fact that the ballast water reception facilities at Sullom Voe had not been commissioned, although tankers can be operated so as not to cause pollution even in the absence of such facilities. The terminal operators took action which put a stop to this practice close to the Shetlands, although, I fear, it has been alleged that the tankers are simply discharging their ballast water further south. The latest situation on the construction of the ballast water reception facility is that construction work and installation of equipment is now being finalised, and BP anticipate that they will he able to take over the entire plant by the end of June. They further anticipate that they will be able to treat all ballast water by September, when the new facility will be fully operational. 1315 The noble Lord, Lord Buxton, asked me about intervention on the high seas following a shipping accident. The international convention relating to intervention on the high sea in cases of oil pollution casualties, which I believe was signed in 1969 and came into force in 1975, affirms the right of a coastal State to take such measures on the high seas as may be necessary to prevent, mitigate, or eliminate the danger to its coastline or related interests from pollution by oil, or the threat of it, following a maritime casualty. I hope that that information is helpful.
The noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, asked me about routing of tankers to and from oil terminals. This is a matter which, for the moment at least, we think is best tackled on a voluntary basis in co-operation with the oil industry, and that is what we have in hand for the waters to the North of Scotland.
This has been an interesting and helpful debate. Again, the House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, for introducing this topic to us this evening, and I hope that at least some of the answers that I have been able to give have been of some value.